©Evan Nichols, 2010

In his dream, Bob was being chased by an enormous…what?  The next morning he tried to recount the dream, as he did most mornings, to his wife Becky.  The best he could describe the creature pursuing him was a cross between a wolf, a seahorse, and his elementary-school music teacher, Miss Schilts (whom everyone called Miss Stilts because she had such long legs).  The dream was not particularly distressing, more entertaining than scary, and Bob was bent on relaying every detail that he could remember to Becky.  Most mornings, Becky listened dutifully.

But this morning, her mind was elsewhere.  Today was the day they were driving their youngest son Michael to SFO.  He was flying to the East Coast to attend college, and Becky had been preparing herself for this day for weeks.  Michael’s older brother, Nate, had moved out of the house last summer, having gotten a job right out of college.

“What we have here,” Becky said to Bob as they lay in bed that night, “is an empty nest.”

“Mmmrr?” replied Bob.  He was just drifting off to sleep when his wife blurted out her existential realization.  She had a certain knack for so blurting just as Bob was falling asleep.

“The kids are gone.  It’s just us now.  This is what they mean when they talk about an ‘empty nest.’”

Bob said nothing because somewhere between “gone” and “us” he was unconscious.

The next morning it was Bob who brought up the fowl subject.  “Hey, Beck!” he said with the enthusiasm of one sharing a very great idea.

“What is it?”  She was busy whisking eggs for an omelet.  Michael, when he was home, was known to eat four eggs at a sitting, though his parents seldom ate more than two apiece.

“Let’s get some hens.”

“What?” said Becky.

“Chickens.  Let’s get some.  I can build a coop in the back yard.  It’ll be great. Fresh eggs every morning.  Just think of it.”

“Have you completely lost your mind?  We live in the city, not on a farm.  We can get fresh eggs every Sunday at the farmers’ market.”

But Bob was stuck on the chicken idea.  Becky’s objections were but a minor obstacle.  She’d come around.  She almost always did.

The idea of raising chickens had come to Bob in a dream.  Of course, it was Becky who had planted the seed that would become Bob’s Poultry Project.  In Bob’s dream, a very comely hen—one might even call her beautiful—had stood up on a red wheelbarrow and spoken these words: “Fresh.  Warm.  Eggsssss.”  That was all it took.  Bob was sold.

And so Bob and Becky Rittenhouse began collecting chickens.  Two at first—Rhonda and Ruth—but Becky, who became enamored of the two “girls,” as she called them, in no time convinced Bob that two was such a lonely number.  And before long, the coop that Bob built with his own two hands was occupied by eleven exquisite hens: Renee, Rita, Rachel, Renata, Reina, Robin, Roberta, Rose, Roxanne—along with Ruth and Rhonda.

Although it was Bob who had spearheaded the Poultry Project, Becky was the one who doted upon the chickens.  Every morning she was out in the back yard calling, “Heeeere, Ladies.  Laaaadies!” And the birds would run to her.  She would spend some time petting each of the eleven chickens before entering the coop to gather their eggs.  Rhonda was by far the biggest producer, laying four eggs a week. The other ten pulled their weight, with the entire team yielding an easy dozen between Monday and Sunday—more eggs than Bob and Becky could consume for breakfast, but Becky began making quiches, soufflés, and custards.  As nice as it was to have fresh eggs on demand, Bob, with his slightly elevated cholesterol, was the first to complain.

“No more eggs,” he said after Becky placed the tomato, spinach, and cheese fritata on the dinner table.

“What do you mean?” said Becky, obviously in denial over the situation.

“I can’t eat another egg.  This is just too much.”

“What do I tell the girls?”

“The girls?”

“The ladies.  Rhonda, Roxanne.  Ruth, Renee.”

“They’re chickens, Beck. You don’t have to tell them anything.  But you can’t expect me to keep eating eggs morning noon and night.”

The phone rang.  Becky picked it up on the third ring.

“Mom?”  It was Michael, who was in the fourth week of his first semester at Boston University. “I’m coming home.”

His parents were of two minds—four minds between the two of them—about Michael dropping out of college.  Becky missed her youngest son terribly, but she also knew the importance of a college education.  Bob had taught his kids not to be quitters, but he was secretly grateful that there would now be somebody else in the house to consume the surplus of eggs. Becky was only too happy to ply Michael with four-egg omelets each morning.

“Ready for more?” his mother offered, frying pan in one hand, spatula in the other.

“Okay, but just a little,” Michael said, his hand covering his mouth.  He had explained to his parents the night before that he needed some time to think things over before returning to BU.  He wanted to go to college, but he just needed “some chill time” at the moment.

“Go ahead and have another omelet,” Bob coaxed his son.  “We’ve got plenty.”

And so they were in the middle of another egg meal—Michael’s twelfth if he was counting correctly—when the phone rang.  Michael bolted from the table to pick it up, in case it was one of his high school buddies calling him back about going out.  Michael had begun plotting ways to get away from the house during mealtimes.

“Mikey, that you?” Michael immediately recognized his older brother’s distinctive clip.  “Thought you weren’t back till Christmas.”

“Nate, hey.  Yeah, well, I’m taking a little time off.”

“Staying with Mom and Dad?”

“Yeah, why?”

Nate then explained to his brother his “situation” at work—or his lack of situation.  The lousy economy had hit his company hard, and being the last hire, the one with least seniority, he was let go.  He was looking for work, and he was also looking for ways to save money.  After he had rehearsed his story, Nate felt ready to try it out on his parents.

“They home?” Nate asked.

“Dad’s right here,” said Michael.

“What about Mom?”

Becky was delighted to have both her boys back at home, and Bob was happy to have another person to eat the eggs.  Once the boys moved back, in fact, Bob would go days at a stretch entirely egg-free.

As winter approached and the days got shorter, the hens starting producing fewer eggs.  This was fine with everybody and, except when they heard the occasional cluck from the coop, the Rittenhouses thought little about the chickens.  Until New Year’s Eve.  The boys were out at a holiday party, and Becky and Bob had gone to bed long before midnight.  It was just after two, when the attack occurred.  Becky heard the noise first.

“Bob.  Bob!  Wake up.”

“Mmmrr?”  Bob was incorporating the squawks coming from the back yard into his dream, another episode in his curious farmhouse chase saga.

“Can’t you hear that?  I think something’s happening to the girls.”  As she said this, Becky was pushing her husband out of bed to investigate the noise.  Just then, they heard a loud thud that sounded like wood breaking.  Bob flew out of the room, Becky right behind him.

When they got outside, they were surprised to see that one of the walls of the chicken coop was completely down.  And they didn’t notice, at first, their two sons standing a few feet away.  Michael was holding a large rock at the ready, just in case.

None of the birds was hurt, though all eleven were clearly distraught.  Michael and Nate explained that they had arrived home just in time to chase away a large animal—neither son could identify the species—that had infiltrated the henhouse.

“Was it a cat?” asked Becky.

“No…didn’t look like a cat.  Had longer legs,” explained Nate.

“A dog, maybe?” said Becky.

“Uh-uh,” said Michael.  “It was more like a…cross between a wolf and a…

“…seahorse?” said Bob.

His wife and his two sons stared at him.  “A what, Dad?” said Michael, sympathetically.

“Nothing.  Nothing,” said Bob.

For the first few months of the new year, not a single egg was produced.  Michael returned to Boston for the spring semester, realizing that college might be the best place for him after all.  Nate stayed through March when his company hired him back.  Becky and Bob adjusted to life without their children, and the hens began laying eggs again, though not as prolifically as they had in the fall.  The Rittenhouses eventually gave away most of the birds, keeping only Ruth, Rita, and Renee.  Bob insisted they add Rhonda to the keepers, since she had been the prize egg-layer.

“But you don’t like eggs,” Becky reminded him.

Bob was about to tell her about the dream he had last night about the Benevolent Egg Goddess who had explained to him that eating eggs was the most holy thing a man could do outside of praying.  But then he thought better of it and went outside to get the newspaper.

©John Levine, February 2010

John Levine teaches writing and speech at UC Berkeley.  His most recent play—in which birds also play a pivotal role—appears in the anthology Kiss or Kill and can be ordered from your local bookstore or HERE

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6 Responses to “Empty Nest by John Levine”

  1. Lukes Says:

    I love this story
    it is soulful and funny
    I look forward to reading more of your work

  2. andrew Says:

    You give your readers a glimpse of the powerful impact dreams can have on us. Also, your story alludes to the nature of unconscious desires and how unspoken wishes seem to influence the people in our lives. Well done!

  3. Fran Claggett Says:

    Great story. I love the pacing, the repetitions, the arc of the story itself. I wish someone in my writing group had written it so I could look forward to a good conversation about it! Thank you.

  4. steve tollefson Says:

    John–This is a masterful short story. The plot itself is absolutely complete in a satisfying way. Beyond that, there are so many terrific lines–funny and telling. Oh, and the names of the girls…

  5. Adela Says:

    Facing my own impending “empty nest,” I was not tempted to start my own poultry production (I did that in the 70’s already), but I found solace in thinking that our little birds will come flitting back to us now and then. It’s a lovely short piece.

  6. fheifhei Says:

    Hi! I discovered your site accidentally today, but am really pleased that I did! Not only is it entertaining, but additionally straightforward to make use of in contrast to lots that I’ve viewed!

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